The day double-portfolioed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala heralded the dawn of austerity, she sounded like an amateur ventriloquist. She broke the news with a borrowed pathos. It was so unlike her. She was the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, the one who always looked through her rose-colored spectacles, the one who always medicated our doubts with a cocktail of statistics.
We didn’t quite need her help to awake to the times. We could see the superpowers toying with the price of crude oil. They are using oil price as a lever for diplomatic interests. They are equal matches in resoluteness, stamina and pride; contesting for energy and for power. They will fight to no end. The depression will linger. We would need prudence to survive since crude oil is our national lifeblood.
However, Okonjo-Iweala emerged a few weeks later, brandishing a daredevil budget. A budget that negates the reality of the hour. A budget that ignores the fall of Nigerian crude production to 180,000 barrels per day. A budget that pretends that the crash of the price of crude below $60 per barrel doesn’t matter. A budget that covenanted half a billion naira to pamper the bellies of President Goodluck Jonathan, Vice President Namadi Sambo and other cadres of Abuja aristocrats. A budget that earmarks 174.6 million naira to meals and refreshment in the State House, 7.4 percent or 11.98 million naira higher the sum approved in a relatively prosperous 2014.
For me, the most frustrating challenge of being Nigerian is that the government is always gnawing at the little faith one has in its capacity for seriousness as guardian of the state. The government constantly requires you to scavenge for some scrap of sense in its horrific stupidity. The government keeps demanding that you reconcile its voice of Jacob with the hand of Esau – to marry its words with its contradictory actions. Yet this open-ended food allocation is provocative.
Those who produced this budget should have been sobered by the gloom of the world. A more discerning man would not sign off on it. He would have had the entire document shredded or directed that the obscene item be expunged. Jonathan okayed it. He lent Presidential imprimatur to the innuendo that Nigerian taxpayers exist to underwrite the fantasies of a few taste buds.
The message is overly loud. The appetite of the powers that be is sacrosanct. The tables of the mighty must increase in season and out of season. Their kitchens have no excuse to look lean and ordinary. This is part of the immunity privilege.
When Jonathan and other incumbents campaign on the theme of continuity, they mean to say they have yet to eat to their heart’s content. They actually plead like Oliver Twist, ‘’ I want some more’’. And ‘’more’’ is an elastic word, amenable to stretching even in the oddest, incongruent times.
Looking at the item, one is tempted to ask whether the VIPs would risk suffering kwashiorkor if they make do with one third of that amount. The Minister of Agriculture, Akinwunmi Adesina, has been singing about the revolution he wrought in Nigerian farmlands. He declares that ‘’ our national food production expanded by an additional 21 million tonnes within three years’’ and food import bill has ‘’declined from 1.1 trillion naira in 2009 to 684.7 billion naira by December 2013 and continues to decline in 2014’’. Why is the government proposing to pay more for food when our barns are bulging with bumper harvest? Has the price of foodstuff gone through the roof? Would President Jonathan not go on whirlwind tour of Nigeria, collecting samples of the fruits of his transformational labor in huge sacs – salt from Abakaliki, rice from Adani, yams from Zaki Ibiam, plantains from Ikom, tomatoes from Jos, crayfish from Oron, chickens from Ota and corn from Zurmi?
What’s the basis for hiking the Presidency’s food bill? Are the gains in million tonnes of food still accumulating in the airwaves, yet to fall, like manna, on terra firma? Do we import cassava bread? Is the government plagued by bulimia? Do we anticipate a surge in the numbers of eaters this election year?
Of course, eating has grown beyond satisfying a biological need. These days, it’s more serious than ingesting a plateful to fuel the body’s metabolic processes. Eating has morphed into a bizarre political phenomenon. It’s been renamed stomach infrastructure, to reflect its transcendent significance in our worldview.
We have heard that invitation to assume a public office in Nigeria is basically a summons to the fattening room; a call to come and chop. This budget affirms that that the concept of leadership as opportunity to feast is as valid today as when candor erupted out of the rage of then Internal Affairs Minister Sunday Afolabi and impelled him to castigate his Justice counterpart, Chief Bola Ige, a pick from the opposition, for criticizing government instead of minding his cutlery.
Afolabi revealed that, in the realms where the affairs of the country are decided, the default mentality is hedonist. People are tapped for positions so they can eat. They are redeemed from Adam’s curse. They don’t have to earn their meals from the sweat of their brow. They could keep vegetating at their post and never be fired. They are there to eat.
A cursory look at the physique of our leaders shows that their mental and physical energy are rarely tasked. Their term in office is usually the best time of their lives. They look more nourished than they have ever been.
One of the governors in the South East exemplifies how a leadership position can revive dead bones. When his predecessor anointed him in 2007, there was a great stir. What energy did the elderly man have left? He had already traveled far into hoary years. A couple of months later, he had reversed his age. He became two decades younger.
Leaders who bear who bear the weight of their post are easy to spot. Their very frame shows that there is a government upon their shoulders. Their faces have lines of worry. So working in the Oval Office alters the boyish looks of the rockstar. He is aging fast. His hair is growing grey. The job is sapping him of youth.
President Jonathan is different. Nothing about him suggests that he is doing anything more challenging than holding a sinecure. Without doubt, he fulfills the easy part of his duties. He can wave at a crowd and dance at rally. He speaks animatedly when the Super Falcons visit for dinner. He is a nice leader in the comfort zone. But he feels offended and irritated when he is reminded that he is not on paid vacation to Aso Rock. He so detests the pressure of his office that he combats it with aloofness. He would skirt questions as though he was too shy or timid to proffer an answer or to be quoted. Still, he won’t brook any suggestion that he needs to embrace his job. No, he is a victim. A creature buffeted by bullies, in constant need of pity and sympathy.
That budget estimates the hypocrisy of the Jonathan administration. He and his aides are ballooning out their consumption while priming citizens to fast more. Austerity measures are bad for advocates of austerity measures and good for others. The poor can skip one more square meal so that advocates of austerity may add one more course of one instance of eating. The Nigerian dream is to live Pharoah’s dream. To create a bifurcated country of fat, sleek cows and thin, bony cows.
This appeal to executive gluttony has soiled the budget. It has subtracted legitimacy from a document that should speak to the greater need of the citizenry. In its present state, it resembles a fraud hatched by a selfish clique in the name of the people. This budget could well have sprung from the fabled cunning of the Tortoise.
The tale goes. People of the firmament invited the birds to a banquet. It was a season of famine. The tortoise begged to join. The birds agreed and contributed their feathers. They made him one solid mass of rainbow. Midway into their flight, he advised that they needed to answer new names for the event. He appropriated the name ‘’All of You’’.
When the meals were served, the Tortoise asked the hosts who all the meals were for. They told him that they were for All of You. The Tortoise claimed he was the single plurality, the only one eligible to eat. He gulped the whole food while the birds watched and salivated.
They paid him back. They took back their feather donations and left the Tortoise stranded. He returned to earth by falling from the heights and breaking his shell.
The budget purports to represent All of You. But the figures show it represents the gluttony of a few. In 2015, it literally taunts the electorate to withdraw President Jonathan’s wings.
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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